“In our village, all the children have to be at school. If we find a child at home when they should be in school, we find their parents. If their parents have not paid the school fees, we tie them up until they agree to pay”
Tonight yet again we lamented with our young pastor Roger that close to half of the school age kids around us are not at school because “school fees are not there”. Roger’s response might seem extreme, but the layers of ridiculousness in the primary school education system warrant that kind of response. These layers are as follows.
1) Primary education is supposed to be ‘free’ and ‘universal’ in Uganda.
2) Although internationally Uganda is praised as a pioneer of free, universal developing world education, its not free, every child has to pay fees to go to school… Its not universal, every child doesn’t.
3) Who charges these fees? The parents of the kids themselves! The government doesn’t provide nearly enough money to schools, and the only way the school can hire enough teachers to limit class sizes to below 100 is to ask the parents to top-up and pay-up.
4) The cost of sending kids to a low quality local school is so small that although it is a heavy burden, nearly every family can afford it at 20 to 30 dollars a year. Especially our neighbours’ dads who have jobs but refuse to pay for their kids. Again Roger said, “The money has to be there. If you plant just half an acre of peanuts and sell them, you can pay for all your childrens’ fees”.
5) The more you pay, the better the school is and the more chance you have to get a half decent education. Its not like New Zealand where you actually have a chance to go to do well even in lower socioeconomic areas. Some of the local schools here have never, ever had a student get the top grade, a ‘first’. In expensive schools in Kampala the capital, most kids get a first.
6) Even if all this is overcome, High School fees are 10 times more expensive than primary and impossible for most families.
If you ask people what the biggest problem in their lives is, school fees is often the first thing on their lips. Sponsoring kids definitely helps, but a much bigger systematic change is needed. What can be done?